This “Yes Alliance” stuff between the Greens and the SNP – how would this work in practice?
Both parties take pride in their retention of internal democracy, at at time when other parties seem to have left such fanciful idealism at the revolving door of ‘modernisation’ (a word I have come to loathe after its utter bastardisation at the hands of Blairism, where ‘modernise’ came to mean ‘any sort of change that happens to make life easier for a selected cadre’). It seems inconceivable that such a dramatic shift in electoral strategy wouldn’t require endorsement in the SNP’s case by either National Council or National Conference. Similarly the Greens would need such internal approval. But such an agreement would, by necessity, need negotiation beforehand. So each party would have to pick a team to meet the other and work out a draft list of which seats go to which party. You also can be sure local branches and constituencies will be lobbying each team hard at each end for their preferred outcomes. Once the respective teams have produced their joint proposal, it would likely then go to each party’s Conference/Council. There would also likely be a need for applications to the Electoral Commission to apply for joint-candidacy status similar to the Labour & Co-Operative Party set-up. In short, you’re talking about a fair number of meetings, a good dollop of paperwork, some unhappy members and activists, and overall a lot of time and energy spent just to get to the point where you begin selecting candidates.
There’s also a group of people who seem to have been forgotten somewhat by some in this drive – the activists of each party in each constituency. Put yourself in the position of Mr Rab McGlinchy, a Green party member for fifteen years in the constituency of Lochdubh West. Having knocked his pan for a decade and a half for a party that barely numbered more than a thousand members, and was marginalised in the media, suddenly things have shifted dramatically since the 18th September. Lochdubh branch, for years populated by half-a-dozen hardy souls, find itself with 150 fresh, energetic, new members and activists. Rab thinks to himself “This is it! OK, we won’t win the seat at first go. But a good showing in 2015/16 gives us a base to work from and grab a council seat in 2017. Get a real campaign going rather than me and my dug shoving cheap leaflets through doors.” But poor Rab’s plans are doomed; the “Yes Alliance” deal agreed between his party and the SNP means no Green is allowed to stand in Lochdubh West. So what does Rab do, as someone voluntarily giving his time and effort to campaign? Does he grit his teeth and continue to give up his weekends and weeknight campaigning for an SNP candidate who wants the Firth of Clyde opened up to oil exploration? Does he jump the bus to a neighbouring constituency where a Green is standing? Or does he just say to himself “To hell with this. That allotment could do with some tidying up”?
Meanwhile Rab’s long-lost cousin Roberta is an SNP member in Craiglang Central. Her constituency now has over 1,000 members and while taking the equivalent Westminster seat in 2015 might be a long shot, the 1,500 majority the Labour party held in 2011 looks like it might be under threat in 2016, especially with a hyperactive local campaign. But as part of the deal done as part of the “Yes Alliance”, any putative SNP candidate in Craiglang Central is no more; instead the Greens will stand here, putting forward a sitting local councillor as their candidate. Roberta’s pretty pissed off with this; she knows the councillor concerned, and knows he’s likely canvassed a dozen doors in his lifetime. She also knows other Green members who were actively against independence. She’s asking herself the same questions her wee cousin Rab is faced with. She’s thinking about attending her local Judo class instead.
This is to say nothing of local finances. Do Green members donating to their branch want that money used to finance the SNP campaign locally? Will folk attending the local SNP quiz night want their entrance money funnelled into promoting Green candidates? Or will each party finance their own campaign? If the latter is the case, it creates a massive imbalance in seats ‘assigned’ to the Greens – with a membership less than one-tenth that of the SNP, money will inevitably be tighter, and less resources will be around locally to fund the campaign.
There are some international examples of pacts and alliances that spring to mind – France sees parties coalesce into voting blocs after the first round voting, usually split left and right (but with a worryingly tendency lately for the Front National to make it to the 2nd round), but then again that’s pretty much the very reason the voting system is the way it is. New York has “fusion” candidates where individual parties stand but with shared candidates, with minor parties like the Working Families Party generally (but not always) backing Democrats and allowing their votes to count towards that individual’s tally. Italy’s weird and wacky world of psephology positively encourages bloc-coalitions, complete with hard-wired mechanisms for distributing seats within an electoral bloc, and a batshit insane version of list PR that legally guarantees the winning party 54% of seats with as little as 29% of the vote. The Republic of Ireland in the past has seen ‘coalition’ campaigns, usually Fine Gael and Labour joining forces as the anti-Fianna Fáil alternative, but these haven’t involved candidates standing aside – rather invoking transfer pacts asking voters for later preferences under the PR-STV system used.
It’s hard to find an example of single issue alliances across parties in the modern political era in the UK, save perhaps for Martin Bell’s candidacy in Tatton in 1997 – but frankly if we’re going to use that as a blueprint you might as well throw a seven-foot drag queen with flashing nipples into the mix as well. The other very tenuous example that springs to mind is the spectacular huff taken by Northern Irish Unionists/Loyalists in 1986, when the very thought of the Anglo-Irish Agreement coming into effect led all of them to resign their seats and hold 15 simultaneous by-elections as a kind of mini-referendum on the subject. This was such a success that 4 seats didn’t have any rival candidates to stand against the incumbents (they had to get a bloke to change his name by deed poll to that of the Irish Foreign Minister and stand in all 4 to ensure a contest), and the loss of a seat to the nationalist SDLP. OK, so the sometimes utterly insane politics of the North of Ireland in the mid-80s tend not to lend itself to answering contemporary Scottish political and electoral questions, but that’s kind of the point – the rarity and eccentricity of these precedents demonstrates the kind of leap being talked about.
To me, too much of the ‘analysis’ done seems to consist of adding together columns of votes on a spreadsheet and coming up with a ‘Yes’ vote based on the constitutional positions of both parties. Yet looking at where actual votes in actual elections go, this seems overly simplistic to say the least. Have a look, for example, at the Liberton-Gilmerton by-election for Edinburgh City Council in June last year (I pick this as a part of the country of relative Green strength). When the Green candidate gets eliminated in Round 4 in 5th place, and her later preferences are redistributed to the remaining candidates, it’s not the only pro-independence party that picks the lion’s share up – in fact it’s the Labour party scooping up 36% of these votes, the SNP getting 32%, the LibDems 23% and the Tories 9%. That’s 68% of Green voters choosing a Unionist candidate – smack bang in the middle of the referendum campaign – ahead of the SNP. Think that’s just cherry-picking one ward to find the ‘correct’ data? Look at Clydesdale South in June this year – 64% of Green transfers to Lab, Con & UKIP(!), 36% to the SNP. Or Dunfermline South in October 2013, with Lab, LibDem and Tory collecting 73% of Green transfers and the SNP 27%. Yes, a small proportion of those votes are Independent or UKIP votes cascading through the preferences via the Greens, and local by-elections can and do have particular local factors outside of ‘normal’ party politics – but the trend seems self-evident: in the run-up to the referendum, at a time when the Greens and SNP were co-operating and working together as close as they have ever been, more than a half of Green voters gave one of the No parties a higher preference than the SNP. It seems incredibly ignorant – and dare I say it comes with a wee drizzle of elitism – to assume voters will simply row in behind whichever pro-independence party has the best chance of winning; the evidence at real elections just doesn’t support this.
Let me also throw in a presentational objection to some of the other reasoning that has occasionally been on display; this concept of electoral pacts/alliances being somehow more mature and progressive than this nasty disagreeing about stuff lark that competing parties insist on. There’s a reason 5,000 folk signed up for the Greens rather than the SNP – they don’t agree with us. And guess why 50,000 folk joined the SNP rather than the Greens – they don’t agree with the Greens. That’s not to say there’s not a fair degree of overlap between the two platforms and relations between the two parties’ activists have tended to be more cordial than most. But we stand for differing visions of the path our country, independent or not, should take. That’s a good thing. It gives the voters more choice and allows us members and activists to be more open about our honest ideological preferences, rather than hide them behind a cloak of convenience. It allows us to offer competing strategies to our members and the electorate. Why should we try to make these differences disappear overnight for an electoral pact that will, by definition, expire at 10pm on polling day?
All of this is not to, necessarily, say a “Yes Alliance” is in itself a bad thing. But the idea that that all it takes is a few changes to candidate lists and some nomination papers to be deliberately not used, add together votes from two different parties to give a grand total and BAM! – you’ve got yourself a successful campaign strategy – is fanciful at best, misleading at worst.